Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Messaging for Remarkable Results, Part 2: Stage To Engage

Welcome to Part 2 of a 3-part series that explores three errors that commonly lead to ineffective communication, and how to avoid them. The first post in this series appeared on May 2nd.  

Is your messaging ineffective because it doesn't grab your audience's attention?

When messaging fails to hit its goal, it's often because no one has set a clear goal to begin with.  In our last post in this series, we dealt with the problems that occur when objectives aren't clearly defined -- that is, when you don't know what you want to achieve.  

Here's a real-life illustration of this truth.  This past week I was invited to attend a post-mortem evaluation for a large (and expensive) public event.  I listened as the project team spent the first ten minutes talking about what went right and wrong.  Aspects of the event's marketing, staging, and content were very thoughtfully reviewed and rated. I noticed, however, that no cohesive standards were being applied to determine how well each factor had contributed to the production's overall effectiveness.  

Eventually I turned to the project leader and asked, "I'm just curious -- were any formal goals established for this event?"  The answer was no, not really.  Like many team efforts, this event had a basic intention, but no established objectives.  So evaluating success was highly subjective.  We spent the next hour having a good discussion about what could have been done better. We made decisions about whether to repeat certain elements at the next event.  But without clear goals to measure against, all conclusions remained open to interpretation.  

The moral of this story echoes last week's Part 1 post in this series: having solid objectives is the first defense against shortfalls in communication. 

If having a Why is important when you craft a message, so is having a How.  And that brings us to the second common communications error that thwarts message effectiveness.  

>>> Messaging fails to meet its objectives when you present your messaging without preparing your audience to receive it.  

We tend to trust the power of our words too much.  We think that if we tell someone something, our work is done.  The truth is, we may have told it beautifully, but if our audience is not tuned in, our words will either have no effect, a partial effect, or a negative effect on our hearers.  

Just because you verbalize an idea, that doesn't mean you have communicated it.  Or as one of my own messaging mottoes (and I have many) puts it:

Just because you've said it,
And just because they've read it,
Doesn't mean they get it.

You may think you can get away with just saying something on the fly.  But whether a communication gets its desired impact depends on how well it's aimed.  It's not what you say or mean; it's what people hear and retain.  

So, after you've first identified your communications objective, one of the most helpful things you can do to ensure you meet that objective is to mistrust your ability to do so.  That is, think beyond words.  How do you want to stage your communication so that you can engage your audience emotionally?

As you might guess from its name, the Book of Proverbs in the Bible is comprised of an ancient group of pithy sayings.  It's quite entertaining to read, actually, and not in the least part for its amazing relevance to human affairs today.  Apparently, people have been struggling with good communication for ages, because one of the proverbs (in chapter 25, verse 11) deals with just this problem:

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. 

Isn't it interesting that this little nugget of thousand-year-old wisdom compares the art of good messaging to the art of designing jewelry?  We can imagine the ancient metal worker plying his craft with care to create a decorative piece for a princely patron.  He wants the effect to be captivating.  So he makes the focal point -- a still life portrait of apples -- from his most precious material: gold.  But, significantly, this Old Testament Tiffany sets it inside a frame of his next-most-valuable ore: silver.  He knows that in visual art, the context matters almost as much as the featured idea itself.   That's because the context has the power to focus the viewer's attention exactly where it needs to go. 

For all we know, King Solomon, who is attributed to be the author of this proverb, was thinking of a favorite ornament maker's signature style when he wrote these words.  Whether or not that's true, he was certainly advocating the strategic use of context, both in art and in communication.  As a head of state, Solomon  might have related the jeweler's craft to his own word crafting as he dealt with rival factions in his own court or negotiated treaties with surrounding countries. He knew that, to get the desired impact, how he staged his messaging was just as important as what he said.

The right context, or staging, can engage the audience in a way that nothing else can.  It has the power to:

  • set the emotional tone and prepare the audience;
  • heighten the perceived value of the message;
  • strengthen both the power and the clarity of the presentation, and
  • maximize the effect of the final impression.  

Staging to engage is a big, big, big subject. I hope to return to it repeatedly on this blog because it's both tremendously tactical and terribly overlooked in modern-day communications, in both public and private venues, and traditional and social media.  So keep tuning in!

In the meantime, the takeaway is this:  if you want your message to have any staying power, you need to frame it carefully.  

So before you press Send on that next communication, ask yourself these questions:

1.  What is the desired outcome I want to achieve with this message (the objective)?

2.  What's the situation that surrounds this message's delivery? List the following:

  • Where will people be when they get this message?
  • What will likely be their emotional state?
  • What are their likely assumptions?
  • What will have just happened prior to them receiving this message?
  • How will the message be delivered (through what medium)?
  • Who will deliver it?
  • What will happen to people right after this message is delivered?
Finally, ask yourself this question:

3.  How can I supply a context that captures the audience's attention, sets up retention, and achieves the objective?

If you treat the message itself like gold, but treat its context like junk, your audience may think that the gold is just cheap street bling and reject your message's value. But if you prepare your audience with a well-thought-out staging, the gold in your words will take on a fascinating glamour, like Harry Winston jewels on the neck of a Hollywood actress. (Incidentally, the red carpet runway of Oscar night is a perfect example of staging to engage.)

Bottom line:  Communicators who think they can write a message and send it out the door without regard to context are either uninformed, narcissistic, or willing to gamble on the results. 

Rule Number Two for  achieving your messaging objective:

 >>> Frame your message for optimal effect, so your audience can absorb it with ease and value it without question.

Coming up: Part 3 of Effective Messaging.  See you back here soon!  

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